Sunday, April 30, 2006

CD Review: Ray Davies - Other People's Lives

So tired of waiting? Maybe, but it’s a good kind of tired, and the wait was worth it. You have to add to the mix the gunshot wound and recuperation Ray Davies endured after tackling a purse snatcher who was absconding with his lady friend’s handbag. I wanna fly like Superman, indeed.

But Superman, or David Watts, Terry and Julie, Walter -- do you remember Walter? -- they’re all other people, and the leader of the legendary Kinks always has and still does continue the disclaimers that he is just a storyteller of tales that are not meant to be taken as autobiographical. He does allow, however, in this long-awaited full-form solo album of originals, Other People’s Lives -- which includes accounts of a smarmy cad, big Australian barmaids, a woman who leaves a killer of a goodbye note, and hung-over self-deceivers -- that some of the characters referred to, regardless of the title, are perhaps “parts of me.” Not that it helps much: “No one can penetrate me, they only see what’s in their own fancy,” he once sang.

Fine, we’ll have to suffice with the piercing psychological profiles and astute, satirical social commentaries, delivered here in varied styles from sinuous moodiness to chunky, punctuating shards of guitar-laden sonic give-and-take. That doesn’t mean, though, that a certain penchant for merging snippets and hints of older Davies’ songs with the newer ones in this punchy and often-enthralling release can‘t provide a little exercise in fun and futility that may or may not reveal the real Ray.

But the nostalgic re-visitations come only in moderation. “Next Door Neighbors” sees Davies, virtually telling tales of drunkenness and cruelty, fretting about the people on his street who could almost include the “Well-Respected Man” and the “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” fallen on hard times. And the “Lola"-like guitar riff in “Is There Life After Breakfast?” a song evocative of the countrified and boozy “Muswell Hillbillies” (1971), is a reminder of how, in concerts during the era of 1981’s Give The People What They Want (a title and tack I took to be can't-beat-'em tongue-in-cheek, given past commercial frustrations) the Kinks would tease the audience with false-start “Lola” intros, effectively not giving them what they want quite yet.

Moreover, in the propulsive, hard-edged opener “The Morning After,” Davies questions the power of positive deluding with another throwback allusion. Singing that “we patch up the last disaster slower faster, crawl out through the door / and do it all again, but things have got to change” the narrator almost wills himself to change with an impassioned and snarled contention, fists to the sky, that “I will I bloody well will -- things have got to change.” A false bravado, perhaps, but still evoking and upending the earlier “Do It Again,” from 1984’s Word of Mouth, wherein the more defeatist character lacks the courage of Other People’s ostensibly perseverant convictions: “And you think today is going to be better / Change the world and do it again / Give it all up and start all over / You say you will but you don't know when."

Is Davies’ glass half-full now? Not if you consider “After the Fall” as it poses the question, “what glass?”: “This time it was harder to get up than before / I cried to the heavens and the visions appeared / I cried ‘Can you help?’ It replied ‘Not all.’" In addition to featuring some beautiful "Waterloo Sunset"-tinged backing vocals, "Fall" is quite reminiscent of “Big Sky” from the classic The Village Green Preservation Society when a similar haughty and insouciant God also shrugged off a few responsibilities:
Big sky looked down on all the people who think they got problems
They get depressed and they hold their head in their hands and cry.
People lift up their hands and they look up to the big sky
But big sky is too big to sympathize
Big sky’s too occupied.

Ah, the ol' deistic ennui. On a more personal, down-to-earth level, things stay a little on the mocking and melancholy side even on the two winning songs, “The Tourist” and “The Getaway (Lonesome Train),” that resulted from Davies’ attempt to vary his usual themes. In an effort to shed a little “Godfather of Britpop” residue, Davies moved to New Orleans in 2000 to soak up the music he loved -- Southern-style blues, country and jazz: “It was as though all of my American musical influences had been floated down the Mississippi from all over America and picked up other styles along the way until it ended up in New Orleans.”

While the nonchalant upper-crust drawl and musical crawl of the fish-out-of-water tale of “The Tourist” is spurred along by a flavoring of this musical amalgamation and a rock-rousing bridge, the more successful of Davies’ American-style departures is the melodically, lyrically and vocally haunting “Getaway” with its spacious Ry Cooder-esque instrumentation and Neil Young quaver (yes, I know Young is from Canada, but he’s lived here long enough to be an honorary American quaverer, at least). The brooding mournfulness evokes mystery trains and the romantic, quintessential American yearning for escape, moving on, and new possibilities: “And is the shadow on the sidewalk someone like you? / In the blink of an eye waving goodbye / It’s time you made your getaway.”

In the familiar vein of Kinks-size societal slicing and dicing, Davies, with the uproarious title song, updates his take on tabloid-type sleaze by including the internet in the ongoing world wide web of deceit's design to “Spread the news, scandalized / Words cut like a thousand knives.” As Davies succinctly sums up in his understated manner, “I can’t believe what I just read, excuse me I just vomited.” Speaking of speaking, Davies’ voice is in better, more expressive form than ever on this solo CD. The best proof of this shows up in “That’s That (Stand Up Comic)” in which Davies, in a song and a cockney-style vaudevillian vocal that could’ve been lifted from one of the highly-theatrical ’70s Kinks' concept albums, announces that "I’m the lowest common denominator, and this is all about your culture," while seemingly skewering both boorish mediocrity and rarefied pretentiousness at the same time:
    Jack the lad has become Oscar Wilde and the followers of style way it’s the latest thing
    William Shakespeare is the schmooze of the week and any one who says different is a fucking antique
    And Noel Coward has become very hard and the comic says bollocks and everyone laughs.
    That’s that.
    Style I mean.
    Never was much never has beenBut the little bit that was was all that we had
    And the clown does a fart and everybody farts back.

Nothing on the essentially darkly and and darkly humored Other People’s Lives is as infectiously exuberant as, say, Arthur’s “Victoria,” and though there is nothing as all-out gorgeous and wistful as “Waterloo Sunset,” "Celluloid Heroes" or "Oklahoma, USA," the album’s stand-out, “Over My Head,” comes closest in expressing a heart and humanity that, while perhaps concerning some other people's lives, surely must at the same time encompass his own. It's everyman's universality, with the understood need to scramble about for refuge and momentary escape from overwhelming strife and stress. “Everyday is a day is a day at a time at a step by step / Hit a wall took a fall to a new depth,” Davies laments, before segueing into a memorably soaring refrain of melodic and vocally visceral impact:
    In a world that is close to breaking I thought that you were my friend
    It’s a world that is full of hating and about to descend
    But I smile and pretend.
    I’m a million miles away from it all
    and let it go right over my head
    Let ‘em chase and the winner take all
    And let it go right over my head . . .
Davies may prefer, as most of us do, to “smile and pretend,” But “Over My Head” is a song that undercuts, redeems or puts to right many of the album’s seeming cynicism or caustic tone, no matter how justified, and provides a nice capper to his first forty years as one of the best and most consistent songwriters and musical craftsmen in rock and pop. Indeed, whether storyteller or self-confessional chronicler, Davies is indeed "not like everybody else." Now if we can just keep him from chasing after purse snatchers . . .


At 5:50 PM, Blogger BunnyHugger said...

I ran across your review while Googling around to see if anyone else liked this album as much as I do. I enjoyed the review, but I think I should point out that you may have misheard the lyrics of "Stand Up Comic." I am pretty sure what he says is "This is about yob culture."


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